Powdering Hare-Lips
Lawrence Durrell

The gardens have many mirrors, shining up on the drawn blinds, in a chaotic, withering flare of imbecility. In his little cubicle Lobo lies in bed, curled up like a fetus, and rings for his breakfast. The unearthly light of the snow sprawls on the green canvas blind. It is still snowing. It will doubtless continue snowing forever. One begins to disregard these things, such is the spiritual disease of this world. The ambience in which we pin decorations up, inflate balloons, or blacken the snow with our best friend's funeral.

Winter morning. An elegy in swan's-down, ferroconcrete, postmen, Lobo, fetus, halfpenny stamps. Four flights up, Tarquin is brooding on the immaculate conception, while the kettle snores on the bob. In the musical armchair, I smoke and watch Lobo's vague movements in the gloom. It is pleasant to lie like this, somnolent, not daring to touch the cold parts of the bed with his toes. The mirror is arranged so that, by lifting himself on one elbow, he can take a good look at his own swart face, and decide whether the night's sleep has refreshed his majesty, or whether the debauchery is gaining on him. There is also the question of his penis. He is catapulting it meditatively against his belly as he studies his features. We do not speak, for this is a solemn moment. He is checking up on his appearance. His face is a sort of diary on which every triviality of the daily life is written. He is convinced of this. "Every line here or there, dear boy, the nose or the mouth, has to mean something; when you do something there is a line; a woman taught me the lines but I don't remember much now, except the virgin line: so." It is impossible to do this without a phonetic system, his argot is so queer. The gloom is swelling with cigarette smoke. Next door Miss Venable is powdering her harelip. The gas fire is playing its mute jazz. The snow is falling. The elegiac morning is opening on the frozen rivers, ponds, eyeballs, wells, fingers, teeth. Not one of us is Canute enough to put his head out of the window and order it to stop. Dactyl, dactyl, the ducks are going to market. The vermilion postman fights his way through drifts of snow to bring me a letter from the white lady, yclept Pat. Lobo is catapulting, catapulting, with a kind of heavy Peruvian rhythm, and thinking over his conquests. The furnaces are being loaded. Chamberlain is letting out the dogs for their yellow morning piddle in the snow. The gorilla is grinning at himself in the mirror, putting on a gaudy tie. There is a seven-inch icicle in his urethra, put there by Jack Frost or Santa Claus. Someone will be made to suffer among the trampled bunting, the gin, the cigar smoke, and the petrified greeting cards on the mantelpiece. Winter morning, with the bacon thawing slowly, as Tarquin's face on the pillow congeals back into sleeping fat. It is a profound moment, set aside for thinking over yesterday's sins and preparing today's. Lobo is cogitating heavily the eternal subject of woman. Particularly the tweed Englishwomen who wear padlocks between their legs. With a groan he is out of bed groping for his can of tepid water outside the door. From the chair one deduces the little ritual toilet he makes: his hairbrushing, tooth scouring, tie pulling. He is very fastidious, very dapper in his Continental-cut clothes. His dressing table is a mass of implements of various kinds, stocked up against the leather-framed exiles, his family. From time to time, when he can drag himself away from his face in the mirror, he pauses massively over the picture of his mother. Ah! that vague Latin sentiment. His mother! But he says nothing. When he is dressed he tidies up and gives a final glance round. The wireless is dusted. His red dressing gown hangs at the door. His tiny shoes lie along the rack in a sentimental Latin ballet. His trousers are pressed in the little wooden rack. Everything is neat and orderly. One glance outside the blind shows him the state of affairs in the outer world. So he turns to the wireless and switches it on.

"Last night she didn't come again."

"Bad luck."

"What to do, dear boy? What to do?"

He lifts the flap of his coat pocket and lets his hand lie firmly along the rim, fingers hidden. He bends his right leg, and places his toe outside his left foot. This is a sort of symbolic pose with which he is waiting for Christmas, and the rewards of a whole season's erotic maneuvering. He begins to describe the vigil on the damp common last night. He has caught a cold, he thinks. And all because of that little strumpet. "Think of me, dear boy, with my heart full of lorve, waitin' and waitin'." It is impossible not to. The winter night falling downstairs among a million busted pillows, and Lobo sitting on a tombstone, frozen stiff, but drawn back like a trigger with lorve, starting at every sound on the frosty roads. Lobo, sitting there with his heart full of lorve, and his pockets full of French letters. It is something to be put on a greeting card for a Peruvian Christmas, under a gothic script and a bloody robin. Tarquin must be told. (But I am not paying attention.)

"Think of me, dear boy," and so on.

Whenever possible he likes to put a big tinge of pity into his conversation because it gives his beautiful black eyes a chance to look their best: soft, molten, wobbling in tears, betrayed. Originally this must have been one of his seduction motives, this expressive sentimentality; but his repertoire of expressions is so vast, and changes so continually, that one finds a few castoff leftovers among his ordinary mannerisms. This soft, invocative pity is one of them, left over from erotic exploits long since forgotten, except for the lines of his face, of course. That serious chart which he examines so earnestly every day, to reassure himself that his left-half profile is really his best side. With English- women, of course, one needs a touch of healthy manliness, in order to get their pity. This he has discovered. So he wears his hat a bit more rakishly for the nonce, and tries to walk with a flat-footed rugger stride. Later, when his protective coloring is better then his knockout exploits will begin in earnest.

His breakfast arrives in the arms of the newest chambermaid, who looks healthy, raw, and adequate. He presents his half-profile to her until she leaves. One of these mornings she will be spread-eagled on his bed while the coffee gets cold. This, one recognizes fatally, is one of the conditions of life. The wireless will be on the whole time. Fiat voluntas, with the family looking owlish and the little shoes in their static ballet.

He takes the tray on his knee and begins to eat fastidiously, like a cat, pushing the spoon between his broad ripe lips.

"I think," he says at last, "I will go into a monastery. Will you come with me? Eh? We forget all these bitches, dear boy, and be holy holy holy. In black."

(Draw back the blind and let the soft translucent light into the room. She is lying there in bed among the apple trees and the frozen lakes, long and cool as a dormitory. The immense gothic monastery between her legs, etc.)

Snow like a great chain from pole to pole. The enumeration of our sins, the forgiving of our sins, the postmen, the buses, the letter with the halfpenny stamp in the rack. The gutters are clotted with filth. The buses scatter. Monologue of the white road stretching down past the Catholic Church, the Municipal School, the Lock Hospital, the exchange, the postbox. Tarquin lying like Gulliver in Lilliput while the buses roam up and down him, over his hips and thighs. Tarquin like the island of England in its winter chains, and the hills like many blanched nipples.

"I am a Catholic," says Lobo cleverly, with the air of having done a trick.

His watch strikes the hour in his waistcoat pocket, and he springs to attention. He will miss the lecture on ferroconcrete, and that would be evil, in the moral sense. His dear father is paying his fees. Moral: honor thy father and thy mother in their frames, and learn to build more Catholic churches in ferroconcrete.

He gathers up his manuscript, his instruments, his textbooks, and switches off the wireless. "Well," he says with finality, locking the door carefully behind him.

Half-past ten of a Yuletide season. Lobo has vanished in a sweeping draft through the stone pillars into the main road. His scarf dangles over his shoulders. The streets are sharp with frost, the shops with decorations. The lamb is born, or will soon be born. I present the telephone at my temple gingerly, like a suicide. Marney pipes and blows down the other end. I can feel the hairs stiffening on his hump. No work today. I have a bad cold. He is angry, to be left in charge of the school like this, and deserted by all but a few good-natured oafs. The miserable children are crowding into the form rooms, piping and farting to keep warm, huddling round the tin stoves. The hunchback usher resents my illness. The sounds are all mangled with cold, indeterminate anger, pique, dignity, despair. "I thought we could count on you at least," he says. I am tempted to reply, "Sorry, but I am a Catholic." Instead I ring off and consult the lounge clock. It is too late to go to Communion: the only gesture in this life that contains the full quota of irony. It is too early to go to bed. It is always too late or too early to do anything at all. However, when in doubt, consult the lounge clock. I consult it. New paragraph.

In his little underground Hades overlooking the garden Peters will be lying, pondering on his own genius --- or masturbating. The great problem for him is whom to be like, if he is going to be a genius. Leonardo liked port and crabapples, for example, whereas Dowson preferred a cigar. It is difficult. Swinburne took it straight from the bottle, and Wagner wore nothing but silk next to the skin. Beethoven's syphilis, was she contracted or hereditary? If the latter, then it is too much to ask. Frankly, all this is a little boring.

Let us take a novelist-in-the-cupboard peep at Tarquin. He has already managed to crawl out of his tepid bed and lift the window sash. The sight of the snow disgusts him. By instinct he hops back and draws the covers up to his chin, trying to hurl himself back into dream with skinny ferocity. No good. Then he remembers the dream he was having and broods pleasantly upon it. A girl on a riverbank. Or boy? It would be better as a boy on a verdant bank, a Cretan saffron gatherer now, that was the theme. Thou still unravished bride of quietness. Very little in Tarquin's dreams remains unravished. I know because be tells me about them; we discuss them together, examine textbooks to see what caused them, and generally psychologize. For his benefit, not mine. Forty years of pious introspection have given him a nose like a bloodhound for his own weaknesses. In this case it is Clare, who lives in the box room at the end of the landing. I say "in this case," in order to pretend that he does not always dream about Clare. But this is untrue. He seldom dreams of anyone so often or so moistly, as he does of this tall black dancing master with the sparrow's knowingness and the cockney twist of the tongue. Therefore the mornings are pleasantly spent in analyzing his unhappy passion and entering the findings in that long-nosed diary of his. If the dream was wet he gives himself full marks (sublimated); if dry, arid, and intellectual then he gets worried (repressed). There is a grave alarm in the air for the healthiness of his "life sexual" (such a dainty pre-Rapbaelite arrangement of those clinical terms, don't you know). Over breakfast we rearrange the clinical scheme, and bolster up his courage for him. It is an endless game of chess with his psyche. Tarquin's effective working life is spent lying on his back, and catechizing himself. His spirit divides itself into two essences, pictured by the words Question and Answer; and he swears to be quite honest with himself, though he does not quite know what he means by this. Honesty and clear thinking are the general idea, however, followed by largeness, scope, and a fine bold spiritual design.

But I am not here to interpret him, nor even to make him grow. I simply put him to bed on paper among a few random syllables of English. In an atmosphere so homely one can only help oneself and hope for the best.

--- From The Black Book

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